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Arthur Levine

Big Wheel Keep on Turnin'
Despite Reports, Coney Island has NOT "Closed"

By September 9, 2008

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Many of the headlines--The Ride is Over at Coney Island, Coney Island Closes--as well as the content of the news stories that have been published and broadcast the past few days would have you believe that Astroland and Coney Island are one and the same. From the sounds of it, people might think the entire Brooklyn beach, boardwalk, and surrounding Coney Island area have somehow vanished. It's shoddy journalism, and it's making me mad.

Let's set the record straight: Since its inception, a single operator has never owned nor managed New York's Coney Island amusement area (unlike most modern-day theme parks). Rather, it has been, and continues to be, a collection of independent owners and vendors. According to owner Carol Albert, Astroland, one of the many attractions at Coney Island, permanently closed its gates last Sunday when Albert was unable to renegotiate a deal with the developer that owns the property on which the park sits. But the rides will still be spinning at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, and a host of other Coney Island amusements and concessions will remain open next season as well.

While taking a well-deserved, post-season vacation this week, Dennis Vourderis, co-owner of Deno's, watched in astonishment as a TV news report announced the closure of Coney Island and showed footage of his Wonder Wheel. "They're just not getting the story right," Vourderis laments. "We're not going anywhere. We'll be in Coney Island for many years."

Granted, Astroland comprises a big chunk of the legendary area's amusements, but there will still be plenty of fun awaiting visitors in 2009. The Cyclone roller coaster, which is located in Astroland, is a National Historic Landmark that is protected in perpetuity and will operate next year. In addition to the iconic Ferris wheel (also a protected landmark), Deno's park offers the revered Spook-A-Rama dark ride along with a host of spinning rides for adults and kids. The Hi-Lo Kiddie Park, the El Dorado bumper cars, the Polar Express, and other individually owned and operated attractions will reopen as well. Throw in the New York Aquarium, the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, Nathan's Famous, the games of chance, Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball, and a bunch of other diversions, and folks will be escaping to Coney Island next season as they have for years.

Like me, Vourderis isn't entirely convinced that Astroland will necessarily be shipped off into orbit. "I'm hopeful that before the demolition crews arrive, some kind of a deal might be reached," he says. A similar eleventh-hour deal was brokered between Albert and landowner Thor Equities, the developer that has grandiose plans to remake Coney Island, before the start of the 2008 season. The Albert family sold its property to Thor for a reported $30 million two years ago. "It's in everyone's best interests for Astroland to reopen," adds Vourderis.

Even if Astroland does leave, it's likely that Thor would bring in a carnival operator or other amusements to the area. Casual visitors might not notice much difference. Despite its longevity, the circa-1962 Astroland has never been the “grand dame” that some try to portray it. It is a ragtag collection of mostly portable carnival rides.

There's no denying that Coney Island bears little resemblance to its high-flying heyday in the early 20th century. However, amid the aging midways and rickety boardwalk, there is an elegant patina of decay and a palpable sense of Americana. The neon signs at Nathan's and the Cyclone fairly ooze nostalgia.

Developers, the City of New York, community leaders, and others have competing visions and are at an impasse about ways to bring change to the struggling area and reclaim Coney Island's glory. One thing upon which they all agree, however, is that something needs to be done. "I welcome change," Vourderis says. "But we need responsible development. The amusements need to stay."

To learn more about the history of Coney Island, the changes proposed for the amusement area, and the current state of affairs, read my Coney Island overview.

Photo: The iconic Wonder Wheel at Coney Island. © Arthur Levine, 2007. Licensed to About.com.
September 10, 2008 at 2:35 pm
(1) Holly Neal says:

Thank you so much for writing this article and setting the record straight! I work at Coney, and the tragic closure of Astroland was frustratingly compounded by much of the press mis-representation that ALL of Coney has closed. It has NOT, and we hope everyone will join us in the fight to keep it open!

September 11, 2008 at 9:40 am
(2) themeparks says:

And thank you for writing Holly. I can only imagine the frustration that you and other folks at Coney Island are feeling. It’s pretty astonishing how badly some journalists mangled this story. I, for one, am looking forward to reporting some good news about Coney Island. Here’s hoping that comes soon.


September 11, 2008 at 6:03 pm
(3) ConeyLove says:

Yes! Thank you very much for helping to set the record straight. And please come join us in raising a drink in honor of Coney Island, Saturday October 4th at 8pm at the Coney Island Sideshow – 1208 Surf Avenue, Coney Island, Brooklyn.

September 11, 2008 at 9:48 pm
(4) Coneykid says:

Great article. Yes, Coney Island rides are not going anywhere. The politicans, mayor and developers only care about the buck, not the community. The people of Coney are a family, and the amusements bring us together. So, we will keep on truckin. And u mentioned Eldorado Bumper Cars. That is the best sounding music in the world, better than any club. It heals my bones when I walk in there, and I can’t leave. Scotty, the DJ is GREAT!!

September 12, 2008 at 7:38 pm
(5) me-myself-i says:

I disagree strongly with this graf: Even if Astroland does leave, it’s likely that Thor would bring in a carnival operator or other amusements to the area. Casual visitors might not notice much difference. Despite its longevity, the circa-1962 Astroland has never been the “grand dame” that some try to portray it. It is a ragtag collection of mostly portable carnival rides.

First of all, I work in Coney Island. Astroland is certainly NOT a ragtag collection of mostly portable carnival rides. The word “ragtag” is insulting to a park that kept Coney ISland alive for 46 years after Steeplechase closed in 1964. are you referring to Thor’s temporary assemblage of here today gone tomorrow attractions by any chance? now that’s ragtag…

In summer 2008, the traveling rides, sideshows and other attractions promised by Thor Equities in the their now infamous “Summer of Hope” press release did not all show up (Zipper, carousel, World’s Largest Rat and other sideshows) and the ones that showed did not stay till Labor Day as Thor promised. In fact the petting zoo, overcharged to the tune of $500 rent per night, left with the Reithoffer carnival. The second carnival’s rides headed south one by one, until all were gone before the summer was half over.

Make no mistake, Thor’s intent is to create empty lots, blight the area and get a hardship variance as an end run around the zoning. Haven’t you heard, according to Thor, amusements don’t make money…Anything that’s left in Coney, including the wondrous Wonder Wheel is going to be pressured to sell to Thor or squeezed out of business.

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